Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Best on the LPGA without a Major: 2013 Kraft Nabisco Championship Edition

All right, it's time to update my last round of predictions as to who will break through for her 1st career LPGA major, this time at the Kraft Nabisco Championship being played this Thursday through Sunday. As always, the numbers in parentheses following the players' names are for LPGA wins and international wins (but only from the other major tours: JLPGA, KLPGA, LET).

Most Likely to Get into the Kitchen with Dinah

1. Ai Miyazato (9/17): I've said it before and I'll say it again: she's due. She doesn't have a great history at the KNC and she hasn't contended in a major since last year's Wegman's LPGA Championship, but who cares?

2. In-Kyung Kim (3/1): Here's what I wrote on the eve of her near-miss at last year's KNC: "Talk about due: she hadn't finished worse than 12th in her last 6 majors until coming to Carnoustie, where she had her worst finish in her last 14 majors besides an exceptionally windy KNC in 2010. Even with an uneven start to 2012, I have to rank someone with 11 top 20s in that stretch of majors, one who's had plenty of shots at the winner's circle, among the most likely to get there this week."  Even after all her injuries and heartaches over the remainder of last season, she's come back strong in 2013 with a few solid starts and most recently another playoff loss at the Kia.  We know she's playing well enough to win; what we'll find out this week is what shape her psyche's in and how quickly she can bounce back from another huge disappointment.  At #2 on this list and among the LPGA's Club 36, I would love to see her break through this week!

3. Beatriz Recari (2/1): Yes, she just beat IK at the Kia, and she's been playing great golf for quite some time now, but her record at the majors isn't as strong (to say the least) as most of the top players on this list.  Still, it would be criminal to rank her lower than this, and you could probably make a case for putting her higher.

The Contenders

4. Amy Yang (0/4): Although her missed cut at the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship ended an 8-major top-20 streak, I still believe in what I saw from her in person at the previous year's event:  she has a great game for majors, she's capable of going toe-to-toe with Ya Ni Tseng (or Stacy Lewis, for that matter), and she's way overdue for her 1st LPGA win.  She came really close at last year's U.S. Women's Open, falling short to Na Yeon Choi's weekend heroics (and some good bounces!), and was in the mix in last year's KNC, so even though she hasn't yet put it all together on the LPGA this year, I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be one week she does it.

5. Angela Stanford (5/0): Her best chance to win a major to date was back in the 2003 U.S. Women's Open, but Hilary Lunke answered Stanford's 27-foot birdie with her own walkoff birdie to win the 18-hole playoff instead. Since then, Stanford's had 18 more top-25 finishes in majors, including 2 top 5s at the LPGA Championship (back when it was sponsored by McDonalds), a T3 and T11 in the last 2 KNCs, and a 4th-place finish at the 2011 USWO (where she was the 3rd-round leader). She's another one of those "any given week" golfers whose game is custom-made for majors--so why not this one?

6. Azahara Munoz (1/1): Despite missing her 1st cut in an LPGA major as an LPGA member at the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship, she played some great golf in the 2nd half of the season and seems to be rounding back into that form after a top 10 at the Kia.  She's coming off a T15 at last year's KNC--I'm thinking she'll definitely improve on that result this year.

Quantum Leap Candidates

7. Hee Kyung Seo (1/11): It took her awhile last year, but she finally got over the disappointment of giving up a late-Sunday lead at the KNC and got used to being near the top of the leaderboard again in the 2nd half of the season. She's had a series of solid but uninspired starts in 2013, but maybe coming back to Mission Hills will jumpstart her game.

8. Moriya Jutanugarn (0/0): Little sister Ariya beat her to the winner's circle at the start of their professional careers, so can big sister continue to outpace Chie Arimura in the Rookie of the Year race with a good finish at the KNC?  I wouldn't put it past her.  A win?  Might be asking for too much too soon....

9. Mika Miyazato (1/1): She already has 9 top 15s to her credit in LPGA majors in her short professional career, including 3 top 10s in a row in 2011 (a T7 at the KNC, a T8 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, and a 5th-place finish at the USWO) and another 3 in a row last year (T2 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, T7 at the USWO, and 4th at the WBO). Plus, she's already won a JLPGA major, getting revenge at the '10 Japan Women's Open for her final-round collapse in the '09 edition--and she finally broke through for her 1st LPGA win last season in the midst of her major run.  Only problem is she basically shut it down early late last season, playing only 3 events after the WBO, and has played a limited schedule in 2013, as well, with very unimpressive results for someone of her talents.  Has she been she injured? sick? burned out?  Or did she just need a break?  Whatever the cause, she has to build on some decent rounds already this season on the JLPGA and come out swinging at Mission Hills if she wants to avoid missing the cut there for the 2nd year in a row.  As for contending, I have to admit I'd be surprised if she pulled it together that quickly....

10. Chie Arimura (0/13): She's had an unimpressive start to her rookie season on the LPGA, but don't forget that she came this close to winning the 2011 HSBC Women's Champions, which always features a major-quality field, and got a top 10 at the KNC that same year (her 2nd in a row there at the time).  Plus, she started last year's JLPGA season late and ended up 3rd on their money list anyway.  The signs aren't great for a quick turnaround this week, but you never know with a player of her caliber.

11. Brittany Lang (1/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 11 of her last 19 majors (the only real blemishes being missed cuts at the '08 WBO, the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship, and the '12 WBO). True, she hasn't had a top 10 since the week after her breakthrough playoff win in Waterloo, and she hasn't been very close to the top 20 all that often, either, but never count out a player with her style of play at Mission Hills.

12. Jessica Korda (1/1): Yeah, she doesn't have a great record in majors and hasn't won on U.S. soil as a professional, but she's been playing really well in 2013 and has the length to dominate Mission Hills.

13. Candie Kung (4/0): She's already got 2 top 10s this season, so I don't see why she can't get a head start on having another season like 2011, where she nabbed top 20s in the last 3 majors of the season.  Never mind that weak performance at the Kia--she's another wily vet who knows how to bounce back big.

14. Chella Choi (0/0): She's coming off a T10 at last year's WBO and already has 1 top 10 and 2 top 20s this season.  She doesn't have a super-strong record at the majors, but she has tasted what it feels like to contend on the LPGA and has made steady improvements every year she's a pro, so maybe she's ready to take it to the next level this season.

15. Haeji Kang (0/0): She's quietly becoming a non-surprise leaderboard presence and is coming off a top 10 at the Kia and a T15 in last year's KNC.  Definitely a dark horse, but wouldn't be a shocker.

16. Sandra Gal (1/0):  She contended at the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run last year but has been bouncing around with finishes in the teens, 20s, and 30s (with the odd worse finish) ever since.  Let's see if Mission Hills can help her out of these doldrums.

17. Lexi Thompson (1/1): Sure, she hasn't yet followed up on her top 10 at the 2010 USWO in another LPGA major, but cut her some slack, will ya? She's another one with the talent to contend any time and a surprising amount of experience in majors for someone so young, even though it hasn't all been good in terms of results.  Still, she showed off some big improvements last year, with 2 top 20s and 4 top 30s in majors, and already has 2 strong finishes in 2013.  Just forget that closing 82 at the Kia, ok?

18. Karine Icher (0/5): She had a great 2012 but is off to a slow start in 2013.  Let's see if she can get it going at Mission Hills.

Watch Lists

Most wins/longest careers without a major: Hee-Won Han (6), Sophie Gustafson (5), Maria Hjorth (5)

Slumping stars in field: Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Seon Hwa Lee, Momoko Ueda

Rising starsCarlota Ciganda, Danielle Kang, Lizette Salas, Caroline Hedwall, Pornanong Phatlum, Gerina Piller, Dewi Claire Schreefel, Ilhee Lee, Belen Mozo, Jenny Shin, Mo Martin, Pernilla Lindberg

Possible non-LPGA winners: Lydia Ko, Ha-Neul Kim, Stephanie Meadows, Lindy Duncan, Doris Chen

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